“Great heaven! why had I not noticed Miss Dudleigh before! In her changed face, and in the wasting of her delicate form, I saw that my fears were not all vain, inasmuch as they were shared by her; and shocked at evidences so much beyond my expectations, I knew not whether to shed the bitter tears which rose to my eyes in pity for her or in rage for myself.
“We were sitting all together, and I had a full opportunity to observe the mournful smile that now and then crossed her lips as Marah uttered some brighter sally than common or broke — as she often did — into song that rippled for a minute through the heavy air and then ceased as suddenly as it had begun. She looked much oftener at Marah than at Urquhart, and seemed to be asking in what lay the charm that subdued everybody, even herself. And when she seemed to receive no answer to her secret questioning, her eyes fell and a sigh stirred her lips, which, if unheard by the preoccupied man at her side, rang on in my ears long after I had bidden farewell to her and the siren whose smiles, intentionally or unintentionally, seemed destined to bring shipwreck into three lives.
“It was not the last time I heard that sigh. As the weeks progressed it fluttered oftener and oftener from between those pale lips, and at last the change in Miss Dudleigh became so marked that people stopped in the midst of their talk about the stamp act to remark upon Miss Dudleigh’s growing weakness, and venture assertions that she would never live to be a bride. And yet the preparations for her bridal and for mine went on, and the day set apart for the latter drew bewilderingly near.
“Marah saw my perplexity and her cousin’s grief, but did nothing to dispel the one or assuage the other. She seemed to be too busy. She was embroidering a famous stomacher for herself, and while a sprig of it remained unworked she had neither eyes nor attention for anything else, even for the bleeding hearts around her. She would smile — O yes, smile upon me, smile upon Honora, and not smile upon him; but she would not meet her cousin’s true eyes, nor would she grant me one minute apart from the rest in which I could utter my fears or demand the breaking of that spell whose effects were so visible, even if its workings were secret and imperceptible. But at last the stomacher was finished, and as it dropped from her hands I threw myself at her feet, and from this position, looking into her eyes, I whispered:
“‘This is the last thing that shall ever flaunt itself between us. You are to be mine now, and in token of your truth come with me into the conservatory, for I have words to utter that will not be put off.’
“‘You are cruel,’ she murmured, ‘you are tyrannical. This is a time of revolt; shall I revolt, too?’
“Maddened, for her eyes were not looking at me, but at him, I leaped to my feet, and, regardless of everything but my determination to end this uncertainty then and there, I lifted her and carried her out of the room into another, where I could have her alone, and without the humiliating sense of his presence.
“My bold act seemed to frighten her, for she stood very still where I had placed her, only trembling slightly when I looked at her and cried:
“‘Did you ask that question of me? Am I to understand you want to break your fetters?’
“She plucked a rose from her breast and crumpled it to atoms between her hands.
“‘O why are they not golden ones!’ she asked. ‘I am miserable because we must be poor; because — because I want to ride in a carriage, because I want to wear jewels and own a dozen servants, and trample on the pride of women plainer than myself. I hate your humble home, I hate your stiff Dutch kitchen, I hate your sordid ways and the decent respectability that is all you can offer me. Were you beautiful as Adonis, it would make no difference. I was born to drink wine and not water, and I shall never forgive you for forcing me to take your crystal goblet in my hands, while, if I had waited —’
“She stopped, panting. I let my whole pent-up jealousy out in a word.
“‘Edwin Urquhart has not even a crystal goblet to offer you. He is poorer than I am, and will remain so till he has actually married Miss Dudleigh.’
“‘Don’t I know it!’ she flashed out. ‘If it had been otherwise do you think —’
“She had the grace or the wisdom to falter. I regret it now. I regret that she did not go on and reveal her whole soul to me in one fell burst of feeling. As it was, I trembled with jealousy and passion, but I did not cast her from me.
“‘Then you acknowledge —’ I cried.
“But she would acknowledge nothing. ‘I love no one,’ she asserted, ‘no one. I want what I want, but none of you can give it to me.’
“Then blame me as you will, I took a great resolve. I determined to give her what she craved; convinced of her sordid nature, convinced of her heartlessness and the folly of ever thinking she could even understand, much less reciprocate my passion, I was so much under her sway at that moment that I would have flung at her feet kingdoms had I possessed them. Flushing, I seized her hand.
“‘You do not know what a man in love can do,’ I cried. ‘Trust me; give me yourself as you have promised, and sooner or later I will give you what you have asked. I am not a weak man or an incompetent one. Politics opens a vast field to an ambitious nature, and if war breaks out, as we all expect it will, you will see me rise to the front, if I have you for my wife and inspiration.’
“The scorn in her eyes did not abate. ‘O you men!’ she cried. ‘You think you give us everything with a promise. A war! What is the history of wars? Demolished homes, broken fortunes, rack, ruin and desolation. Is there gold, or honor, or ease in these? A war! It will not be a war. It will be a struggle in which men will fight barefoot and on empty stomachs for the privilege of calling themselves free. I have no sympathy with such a war. It robs us of comfort in the present and brings nothing worth waiting for in the future. Were I to have my will, I would take the arm of the first officer returning to England and remain there. I hate this country, so new, so crude, so democratic! I should like to live where I could ride over the necks of common people.’
“A tory and an aristocrat! Another gulf between us. I looked at her in horror, but, alas! the horror was strangely mixed with admiration. She was such a burning embodiment of pride. Her peculiar beauty — the source of which I have never to this day been able to fathom — lent itself so readily to the expression of fury and disdain, that, recoil as I would from her principles, I could not shut my eyes to the fascination of her glance or the torturing charm that hid in the corners of her pouting lips. She was a queen. Oh, yes, but the queen of some strange realm in a distant oriental land, where right and wrong were only words, and the sole end of beauty was delight, without reference to God or one’s fellows. I saw it all, I felt it all, yet I lingered. She was to be my wife in three days, and the intoxication of this prospect was in my blood and brain.
“‘You will do so and so,’ were her next words. ‘You will give me what I ask when you have won it. But I cannot wait for the winning; I want it now. Do you know what I would do to get the wealth I was born to? I would risk life! I would walk on burning plowshares! I would —’
“She stopped, and I saw the lines come out in her forehead. She was thinking — thinking deeply. I felt the shadow of a great horror creeping over me. I caught her impetuously in my arms. I kissed her passionately to drive away the demons. I begged and implored her to forget her evil thoughts, and be the woman I could love and cherish; and finally I moved her. She shook herself free, but she also shook the shadow from her brow. She even found a smile to bestow upon me; and was it a tear? Could it have been a tear I saw for a moment glisten in her eye as she turned half petulantly, half imperiously away? I have never known, but the very suspicion filled my heart to overflowing, and the great sobs rose in my breast; and — fool that I was — I was about to beg her pardon, when she gave me one other look, and I merely faltered out:
“‘Where will you find another love like mine, Marah? If you got your gold, you would soon miss something which only comes with love. You would be unhappy, and curse the day you left my arms. I am your master, Marah; why not make me a happy one?’
“‘I expect,’ she murmured, ‘to marry you.’
“‘And then?’ I could not help it; the words sprang to my lips involuntarily.
“Her eyes opened wide; she literally flashed them upon me. I felt their lightnings play all about my doubtful nature, and scorch it.
“‘I will be your wife,’ she uttered gravely.
“I fell at her feet. I kissed the hem of her robe. In that moment I adored her. ‘O best and fairest!’ I cried, ‘I will make you happy. I will fill your hopes to the full. You shall ride in a carriage, and your will shall be a law to those who smile in scorn upon you now, and you will be —’
“‘Mistress Felt, of most honorable degree,’ she finished, with the half laughing disdain she could never keep long out of her words.
“And thus I became again her slave, and lived in that sweet, if servile, condition till the hour of our nuptials came, and I went to conduct her to the church where, in sight of half the town, she was to be made my wife. Shall I ever forget that morning? It was a December day, but the heavens were blue and the earth white, and not a cloud bespoke a rising storm. As for me, I walked on air, all the more that I knew Urquhart was out of town and would not be present at the wedding. He had gone away on some behest of Miss Dudleigh’s immediately after the last interview I have mentioned, and would not come back, or so I had been told, till after Miss Leighton had been Mistress Felt for a week. So there was nothing to mar my day or make my entrance into Miss Dudleigh’s house anything but one of promise. I saw Miss Dudleigh first. She was standing in the vast colonial hall when I entered, and in her gala robes, and with the sunshine on her head, she looked almost happy. Yet she was greatly changed from her old self, and I felt much like pouring out my soul to her and bidding her to break a tie that would never bring her peace, or even honor. But I feared to shatter my own hopes. Selfish being that I was, I dreaded to have her made free, lest — What? My thoughts did not interpret my fears, for at that moment a sunbeam struck down the stairs and through my heart, and, looking up, I saw Marah descending, and thought and reason flew to greet her.
“She had been robed by her cousin’s bounteous hand, and her dress of stiff yellow brocade burned in the morning light with almost as much brilliance as the sunshine itself. Folded across her bust was the wonderful stomacher, under whose making I had suffered so many emotions that each sprig of work upon it seemed to have its own tale of misery for my eyes, and fixed against this and her white throat were those masses of flowers without which her beauty never seemed quite complete. In her hair, which was piled high above her forehead, flashed a huge golden comb, and upon her arm gleamed two bracelets, whose exquisite workmanship was well known to me, for they had been an heirloom in my family for years. She was fair as a dream, proud as a queen, cold as a statue, but she was mine! Was not the minister waiting for us at the church? and were not the horses that were to take us there even now champing their bits before the door?
“She rode with me. Four white horses had been attached to Miss Dudleigh’s coach, and behind these we passed in state out through the noble park that separated this lordly house from the rest, into the closely packed streets, where hundreds waited to catch a glimpse of the most beautiful woman in Albany, going to be made a bride.
“Miss Dudleigh rode behind us in another coach, and the murmur which greeted our appearance did not die out till after she had passed, for they knew she would soon be riding the same road with even greater state, if not with so much beauty; and the people of Albany loved Honora Dudleigh, for she was ever a beneficent spirit to them, and more than ever, since a shadow had fallen upon her happiness, and she had come to know what misery was.
“And thus we passed on, Marah with a glowing flush of triumph burning on her cheek and I in one of those moods of happiness whose rapture was so unalloyed that I scarcely heard the half-laughing comments of those who saw with wonder how plain was the man who had succeeded in carrying off this well-known beauty. And the greater part of the way was traversed, and the bells of the old North Church became audible, and in a moment more we should have seen the belfry of the church itself rising before us, when, suddenly, the woman that I loved, the woman whose nuptials the minister was waiting to celebrate, gave a great start, and, turning quickly toward me, cried:
“‘Turn the horses’ heads! I do not go to the church with you to-day. Not if you kill me, Mark Felt!’
“You have heard of stray bullets coming singing from some unknown quarter and striking a person seated at a feast. Such a bullet struck me then. I looked at her in horror.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09